Horse racing gets more TV time with other sports on hold

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Socially distanced crews in New York and California are keeping horse racing on television in the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic.

Horse racing is one of the few sports ongoing, albeit in a limited capacity at a handful of empty tracks, but its TV presence has expanded because of the dearth of other options. The New York Racing Association helps produce “America’s Day at the Races” on Fox Sports, TVG has partnered with NBC Sports for a dozen hours of coverage each week, broadcasting every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 4 to 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN, NBCSports.com and on the NBC Sports app. The hope is that the fledgling industry can stay afloat and gain more exposure during these trying times.

“Horse racing has been a welcome substitute for other events that are currently unavailable,” Fox Sports executive vice president Mike Mulvihill said. “Viewing of horse racing has tripled over last year. Online sign-ups for new bettors are up. Betting handle at the tracks we present is up. It’s been a nice bit of normalcy when the rest of the sports world is anything but.”

For a sport that usually only garners national attention from the Kentucky Derby through Triple Crown season, horse racing is benefiting from being the only game in town. Total viewership on Fox Sports 1, Fox Sports 2 and NBC Sports Network is up 206% in 2020 from the same time last year.

Different kinds of viewers are tuning in, too, and TVG CEO Kip Levin said the tone of broadcasts changed quickly to accommodate that.

“Hats off to our production and talent team: Literally within days they had shifted from talking to the fan that knew a lot about the sport to talking to and really educating the audience in ways in which we don’t normally do,” Levin said.

More causal bettors are signing up for NYRA’s program, as well as FanDuel Racing. NYRA chief revenue officer Tony Allevato said it had signed up seven times the amount of people over the past three weeks than the rest of the year combined and has offered things like $20 free bets to get beginners familiar with the sport.

New fans are able to get familiar by watching on TV thanks to just a few dozen people working at Belmont Park on Long Island and Southern California studios. NYRA director of TV operations Eric Donovan oversees a third of his usual staff spread out among multiple areas at Belmont Park, while TVG’s usual crew of 45-50 is down to less than 10 people, all in their own workplaces.

On-air broadcasters are either stationed apart on set or working from home. Officials said workers are observing CDC and local guidelines on distancing while doing their jobs to put races on the air.

“We’ve spaced everybody out throughout our TV trucks so that people are not in close proximity with each other, we’re constantly cleaning the facility, so we’re operating in a safe way,” Allevato said.

Live racing at Aqueduct Park in Queens was suspended in mid-March after a backstretch worker tested positive for the coronavirus. Groom Martin Zapata, 63, died in early April from COVID-19 complications.

But non-New York races have always been part of the NYRA broadcasts, and now the racing comes from places like Florida’s Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs, Arkansas’ Oaklawn Park, Oklahoma’s Remington Park and Nebraska’s Fonner Park. Belmont Park’s backstretch remains open for almost 600 workers to take care of the horses, and Allevato said NYRA as a nonprofit continues to broadcast races, not to make money but to take care of its employees and help the industry at large.

“We’re keeping them employed, and we’re keeping food on the table for these people,” he said. “We are in horse racing for the long haul, and our goal is to see New York horse racing thrive, and for horse racing to be successful in New York, it needs to be successful across the country and there’s a massive ecosystem that’s involved here with tens and tens of thousands of jobs.”

Watch TVG Trackside Live every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 4-8 p.m. ET on NBCSN, NBCSports.com and on the NBC Sports app. 

Pegasus races planned for Gulfstream and Santa Anita in 2024

Horse racing on Opening day of the winter-spring meet at Santa Anita Park.
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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – After seven Pegasus World Cup events, it’s evidently time for change.

1/ST Racing, which has hosted the entirety of the Pegasus series to this point at Gulfstream Park, is planning for two Pegasus days in 2024 – one at Gulfstream and the other at Santa Anita. Details aren’t finalized and it’s unclear how it would fit in the racing calendar, but 1/ST is planning for both dirt and turf Pegasus races as part of the Santa Anita program.

Gulfstream played host to the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational on the dirt Saturday, along with the $1 million Pegasus Turf and the $500,000 Pegasus Filly and Mare Turf.

“I’d really love to see that we bring it to the West Coast,” 1/ST President and CEO Belinda Stronach said. “That will probably happen in 2024. What we did this year for 2023 was said, `OK, we have a number of great race days, let’s coordinate those better and call it the 1/ST Racing Tour and recognize great achievements within our own footprint.”

Saturday marked the first stop on that new 1/ST Racing Tour. Along with some of the biggest race days at 1/ST tracks – like Florida Derby day at Gulfstream on April 1, Santa Anita Derby day on April 8 and the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico on May 20 – there are a pair of days where the tour will be running simultaneously.

This coming Saturday, Gulfstream will play host to the Holy Bull while Santa Anita has the Robert B. Lewis – both of them Kentucky Derby prep races.

And on March 4, Gulfstream has the Fountain of Youth, another major Derby prep, while San Anita has the Big Cap. Plans call for coordinated post times at those two tracks on those days to provide the best racing action every 20 minutes, as well as some unique betting options.

“We can never rest on our laurels,” Stronach said. “We have to keep moving forward. We have a great team that’s really committed.”

The main Pegasus race is one of the biggest-paying races in North America. Art Collector claimed about $1.8 million from a $3 million purse with his win on Saturday. In 2022, only the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic and $4 million Breeders’ Cup Turf featured bigger prizes among U.S. races, and the $3 million Pegasus purse is equal to the one offered last year at the Kentucky Derby.

Regardless of what happens with the Santa Anita plan for future Pegasus events, Stronach insisted Gulfstream will continue having Pegasus days. There has even been talk about Gulfstream playing host to Breeders’ Cup races again, something that hasn’t happened since 1999.

“This is staying here in Miami,” Stronach said. “Pegasus has a home here in Miami. We can’t move Pegasus from Miami. We have great partners here and it’s more than just a day now. We have deep roots here in Miami.”

Arabian Knight earns Baffert record 6th win in Southwest

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – Arabian Knight won the $750,000 Southwest Stakes by 5 1/2 lengths at Oaklawn, giving Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert his record sixth victory in the race.

The colt came into the Kentucky Derby prep as one of the most highly touted 3-year-olds in the country. Arabian Knight, who was purchased for $2.3 million as a 2-year-old, was making his second career start and first on a sloppy track in front of 27,000 fans in Arkansas.

“These good horses are hard to come by,” said Baffert, who was on hand in Hot Springs. “We’ve had a lot of luck here at Oaklawn, so it was nice to have a horse like this.”

However, Arabian Knight was ineligible to earn the Kentucky Derby qualifying points awarded to the winner because Baffert has been suspended for two years by Churchill Downs Inc. The penalty, which ends shortly after this year’s Derby on May 6, stems from Medina Spirit’s medication violation after the colt won the 2021 Derby and was later disqualified. Baffert is challenging the ban in court.

Ridden by John Velazquez, Arabian Knight ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:43.50 and paid $2.80 to win. He is 2-0 and has career earnings of $544,275.

“He ran 1:43 and change, that’s racehorse time and he did it without taking a deep breath,” Baffert said. “This was a big effort.”

Red Route One closed from last to finish second, and Frosted Departure was third. Sun Thunder was fourth, followed by Jace’s Road, Corona Bolt, El Tomate and Western Ghent.

At Gulfstream in Florida, Baffert’s entry Defunded finished second in the $3 million Pegasus World Cup, beaten by 4 1/2 lengths by Art Collector on Saturday.